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For one protester, 'it's suffocating' to be a black man in the US

"I couldn't stay home": Moah Pollas, an African American recent college graduate, explained why he was compelled to spend days demonstrating in the streets of the US capital against systemic racism, despite the fear of being arrested, or worse.

For one protester, 'it's suffocating' to be a black man in the US
Moah Pollas. AFP
As a victim of racism himself, Pollas simply could not stay home.

It started early. When he was just seven or eight years old, walking down a sidewalk one day after a school field trip, he heard someone yell at him from the window of a passing school bus.

"Take your black ass back to Africa!" a boy yelled, as others on the bus laughed raucously.

"It didn't hurt as much as the reaction I got from my white teacher when I told her," he told AFP. "She basically told me to get over it."

"I'm not sure if she really believed me, to be honest."

"That experience," added Pollas, a 21-year-old political science graduate, "has colored every experience with white people or other people of color for the rest of my life."

Born in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, Pollas was two years old when his family immigrated to the United States. His parents, who were fleeing political persecution, settled in the predominantly white California city of Burbank.

"I grew up knowing that based on my skin color, people were going to perceive me in a more threatening way, perceive me in a more dangerous way and perceive me to be more violent. 

"It causes you as a black person to police your actions on a daily basis, 24/7," he told AFP, sitting in the backyard of a home he shares with other students in northeastern Washington. 

Being black in the United States, he said, is "suffocating."

It means that if he is walking down the street "and if there are white people walking in the same direction as me, I should probably step out of the way... I should probably do my best to look at the ground. I probably do my best to stay quiet."

'The fear in him'

One day when he was 13 years old he was in a car with his father, who works in the pharmaceutical business, when police pulled them over.

"Police officers pull people over just because they're black all the time," he said.

"When my dad was stopped, I could sense the fear in him. A fear that I've never seen in the man who was protecting me and my family my whole life. That fear transferred onto me in that moment. And honestly, has never left me."

African Americans are three times as likely to be killed by police as whites or Hispanics, according to data from the specialized website mappingpoliceviolence.org.

In one egregious example, a 32-year-old black man named Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in the state of Minnesota in July 2016 after the officer stopped him because of a faulty brake light on his car.

'I saw my own face'

Then on May 25 came the death of a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd, who was suffocated when an arresting officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The death of the father of five, in a horrifying video now seen by millions, sparked protests of historic dimension across the United States as well as in many cities abroad.

"When I saw that video... I didn't just see George Floyd. I saw my father's face. I saw my uncle's face, my brother's, my cousin's, my friends'. 

"I saw my own face," Pollas said, not hiding his emotions. "I saw how easily I could have been in that situation and the people I cared about could have been in that situation." 

A recent graduate of Howard University in Washington, a prestigious predominantly black school, Pollas had long dreamed of a career in politics. But lately he is thinking instead of a job in education.  

His change of heart likely came when worked in the city as a substitute teacher.

"I've seen first-hand the effects of underfunding that really affects predominantly black schools in DC," said Pollas.

Having studied Russian, he is planning to travel to Ukraine to teach English. But when he returns to the United States he hopes to work to help change the system.

"I'll come back and continue working on writing about race and race policy in this country, about our political system and trying to find ways in which I can be a true activist and a revolutionary," he said.

Topics: Moah Pollas , systemic racism , African Americans , Philando Castile , George Floyd
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